Turning food waste into sustainable resources
Note: Sara Pace was a Business Development Fellow in 2017/18. This interview was conducted in fall 2018.
Sara Pace is a postdoctoral scholar. She completed a Ph.D. in biological systems engineering, a master’s in architectural engineering, a bachelor’s in architectural engineering, and a B.S. in biological engineering. Her current research involves the use of shipping containers to convert food waste into electricity, heat and fertilizer.
In a nutshell, describe your project or venture.
As part of my research, I am working with startup companies to develop and analyze small-scale anaerobic digestion of food waste by using shipping containers. The technology uses modular, decentralized containers to treat food waste on site and convert it into electricity, heat and fertilizer. My focus has been on assessing the technical, economic and environmental performance of these modular systems.
What’s important about your research or project—and where do you hope to take it?
Organic waste is the largest component of the municipal solid waste stream, at 28 percent. The state of California has enacted several policies to increase alternative organic waste treatments to divert waste from landfills and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well as increase renewable energy resources. This modular technology can enable local California communities to quickly treat diverted organic waste without needing to invest in a large infrastructure or haul it over long distances to existing centralized treatment centers. My research aims to advance the technology and knowledge required to increase the distribution of these cost-effective, on-site AD systems to waste management for California communities.
What are you most passionate about in your work?
I am most passionate about creating new systems to enhance the overall sustainability of our communities. So much work is being done to develop net-zero energy buildings and communities to promote sustainability from an energy aspect. I want to take this approach a step further and contribute to our overall sustainability from a material use point of view by ensuring we not only have net-zero energy communities, but we have net-zero waste communities, as well.
What was the most important thing you learned at the Entrepreneurship Academy?
The Entrepreneurship Academy gave me a crash course into developing new business ventures. I learned the importance of identifying and communicating your venture’s value proposition and establishing a network. The value proposition is a key piece to transform a great research idea into a great business venture. Furthermore, a network can help ensure you have access to the right tools for your venture to succeed. At the academy, I was introduced to the existing network and resources available at the university and in the Sacramento region to support startups, from mentoring to intellectual property development and even companies that rent bench space for small startups.
What is the most unexpected advice you received from a mentor?
To think about my product not just from the technology development side, but from the customer’s vantage point, to make sure it’s truly addressing their needs.
Do you plan to participate in the Big Bang! Business Competition or “just” the workshops? How do you expect this to help you as an aspiring entrepreneur?
I plan to participate in the Big Bang! Workshops. They will help me gain more practice and exposure to translate ideas into new business ventures by developing a successful business plan and pitch.
How will your experiences as a Business Development Fellow help you to change the world?
State and federal government policies have been essential for the startup of different renewable energy and bioconversion technologies; however, policies alone cannot ensure the long-term success of these sectors. Understanding the business aspect of implementing new technologies, especially bioconversion technologies, is a substantial key to success and survival. I want to be able to bridge the gap between the research development of understanding the mechanisms of these newer technologies and how to improve commercial feasibility. The Business Development Fellows Program is helping me build this bridge by enabling me to interact with MBA students and gain a new perspective on evaluating technology and market opportunities, as well as fundamentals of effectively managing teams, developing a business plan and other strategies for establishing and maintaining a sustainable business, both financially and environmentally, to make a positive difference in the world.